Terry Pratchett and the new ritual of death

The author’s film about assisted suicide focused on the act of dying to the exclusion of the life that precedes it.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

There is a saying in Canada, meant to be a semi-humorous comfort for those who suffer the minus-40 degrees Celsius weather that often settles for weeks at a time: ‘Cold is only the absence of warmth.’ Though it brings at best grim (and frequently blue-lipped) smiles, it does express a fundamental truth. It is only the contrast of warmth that gives the concept of ‘cold’ any meaning; strictly speaking, we feel absence of warmth rather than cold. We might also say of darkness that it is created by the absence of light.

There is a similar conceptual confusion that haunts (if you’ll excuse the horrible pun) modern conceptions of death in reputedly atheistic conceptions of it. Death is only the absence of life. It is – at least for non-believers like me and Discworld author and assisted-suicide campaigner Terry Pratchett – not a ‘journey’ but the terminus, not an experience but the end of all experiences. Death is meaningless without reference to the life, either collective or individual, that preceded it.

As Gunther Von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition ably demonstrates, gaping at nameless dead bodies is pointless. The chief reason for interest in cadavers, apart from medical science, is a childish desire to tame death, to somehow conquer it by staring it – literally – in the face. Giving the many visitors to Von Hagen’s macabre exhibit the benefit of the doubt – and noting Von Hagen’s propensity to display the sexual organs of cadavers with splayed legs and his replacement of the nipples of female cadavers after removal of their skins – it is the desire to understand death by examining the mechanics of it. It is an answer to the question asked by small boys: ‘What happens to bodies after they die?’

Terry Pratchett’s BBC TV show this week, Choosing to Die, reflected a variation on this theme. It conveyed utterly understandable confusion and an array of fairly unpalatable options. As Pratchett said, ‘I have a head full of questions and I want to get some answers’. After the programme, most still remain unanswered.

It would be impossible not to feel the most profound sympathy for the three figures at the centre of the drama. It was impossible not to like them and to sympathise with them and their relatives. Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old motor neurone disease sufferer, showed stoicism and practicality as he died on camera, which made his last kiss with his wife so much more powerful and so much more important than his rasping final moments. What stood out in the film were the mundane aspects of life – the cups of tea or the yellow and black tape beside the stairs into the Dignitas clinic so that the person coming in to die does not… what, hurt themselves?

Fear also emerged as the star of this show: Pratchett’s, Smedley’s and 42-year-old multiple sclerosis sufferer Andrew Colgan’s and, it must be said, our own. As Colgan said, his future appeared to be a continually narrowing tunnel. This outlook is understandable, but, unlike the underlying conditions of their diseases, it is curable. This fear is bereft of religious comfort. In fact, the motivation behind these people, it must be said, appears to be an attempt to re-ritualise death. The moment of dying – the way of dying – appears more important than the living preceding it.

What did Pratchett learn? What did we learn? We learned that the last few moments of life are often horrible, even in the clean, ‘dignified’ Dignitas clinic. We learned of the uncertainties involved. We learned that our idyllic, imagined clean, controlled departure is illusory; the only way we will ‘experience’ death is in our own fevered imaginings. We are likely to be surrounded by medical assistants ensuring that the whole process is legally watertight in a depressing hotel room on an industrial estate. But by voyeuristically watching the mechanics of death – whether in Von Hagen’s exhibition or in a BBC documentary – we learn little about its real meaning.

There are many points that Pratchett gets right, not least his choice of Thomas Tallis as his ultimate ‘desert-island disc’. He is also right that anyone, rich or poor, should be able to buy or make a deadly cocktail of drugs without the paternalistic intervention of the state. But he fails to explain why anyone else would assist a suicide. It is an act that we can all accomplish – with a little forward planning – unaided. No one would put Mrs Smedley in jail had Peter decided to accomplish the act back in the UK. When someone asks for help in something he can clearly accomplish by himself, the person helping seldom does any good. That is not to say that doctors should not continue to dispatch patients in the last hours, days or weeks of life. But if someone asks for help in ending her life because she feels it is wretched, surely she is asking us not to end her life but for an argument about the meaning and value of her continued existence?

Pratchett also fails to draw the line between those who are simply tired of living and those with legitimate reasons for wanting to die. Colgan might have had years left of life. How can we draw the line? Another question unanswered.

Pratchett’s plan to die ‘sitting on a chair on the lawn at his home in Wiltshire, with Thomas Tallis on his iPod, a brandy in one hand and a glass of life-ending chemicals in the other’ is a fairly idyllic death. But the importance that Pratchett places on that single moment of departure ritualises dying no less than the Catholic Church does. Pratchett’s plan to surround himself with things that have brought him pleasure in life is at best born of a need to comfort himself, imagining being dead to be leisure. However, it also seems like an ancient hunter buried with his spear so that he can hunt in the after-world.

As my grandmother used cheerfully to say, ‘Death isn’t the end of the world’. Rather than comforting himself by imagining the world after his death, when his books will ensure he is long remembered, Pratchett, like many others today, seems to feel the world will end when he does. It will not. There is little point in imagining non-existence, any more than imagining what it was like before we were born.

Pratchett may accomplish his chosen death, despite his many confusions and uncertainties. I suspect, though, like so many assisted dying campaigners, he will decide to listen one more time to Tallis’s Spem in Allium, and then perhaps Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, and then William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices. As taxi-driver Mick, who chose to spend his last days in a hospice, said: ‘When is the end? When will I know when the time is right to die?’ Perhaps, for now, Pratchett should reach for Frank Sinatra’s ‘Gonna Live, Live, Live Before I Die’.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

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